Eleanor McCain spares no expense with ‘gift to Canada’
Eleanor McCain pulled out all the stops while making plans to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday.
She envisioned recording a covers album that would be something spectacular. So instead of choosing a single orchestra to bring a selection of classic Canadian songs to life, she enlisted 10 of the country’s top symphonies.
Then she hired 23 photographers to shape a hefty coffee-table book chronicling her coast-to-coast recording odyssey. There’s also a documentary in the works.
“True North: The Canadian Songbook” is a breathlessly lavish project that McCain says is her gift to Canada. The daughter of McCain Foods founder Wallace McCain financed the whole thing herself.
McCain stands centre stage for 31 covers of Canadian favourites — including takes on Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind,” kd lang’s “Constant Craving,” and “I’ll Always Be There” by Roch Voisine — and one new original song.
She also recorded a new arrangement of Bryan Adams’s “Run to You,” substituting his guitar with a saxophone and heaping cymbals, and embarked on a major reworking of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It explores octaves never tread by the late poetic songwriter.
“It’s always a risk when you’re taking these iconic songs,” McCain says. “(We wanted to) try to create something new but still honour the original.”
Her glossy 220-page book captures two perspectives. McCain mingles with her fellow musicians in some photos, while others capture her traipsing across Canada’s countrysides in fancy evening gowns.
In one image, McCain dons a red sequined dress to pose in a Saskatchewan wheat field. Another has her on the shores of Algonquin Park — with a canoe paddle in hand — adorned in a gown from Hamilton-based indigenous designer Angela DeMontigny.
It’s the kind of pageantry only mustered by an expansive budget — and one most Canadian artists probably couldn’t afford.
Those realities aren’t lost on McCain, who acknowledges her good fortunes in belonging to one of New Brunswick’s richest families. But her lineage comes with a downside too, including the unsavoury nickname of “French fry heiress” in the media. She rankles when it comes up in conversation.
“It’s an unfortunate label,” she says. “It doesn’t represent who I am .... The values (my father) instilled in me are not the ones that are attributed maybe to a label like an ‘heiress.’”
When asked how much she spent making “True North” she fumbles for a direct answer.
“A lot. I actually don’t even know,” she says.
“I don’t want to know. No, I do. I just don’t really talk about it that much.”
McCain prefers to focus on calling it a “pure labour of love.”
The project comes as the singer charges ahead with contentious, headline-grabbing annulment proceedings with her estranged husband Jeff Melanson, who was the CEO of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra before stepping down last year. His former symphony is notably absent from McCain’s album.
According to court documents filed by McCain, her “fairy tale” marriage abruptly ended after nine months, when Melanson unexpectedly backed out through an email message. He disputes her account in a response filed by his lawyers, saying their marriage ended after a couple’s therapy session.
Stacks of legal documents have piled up in an Ontario Superior Court as they continue sparring over money and blame. McCain’s album was dragged into the proceedings two months ago when she asked to delay the costly legal wranglings to embark on a publicity blitz for “True North.” Justice Carolyn Horkins rejected the request.
When speaking in person, McCain steps carefully around the subject of her fizzled marriage, though she makes fleeting references to it in her book.
She says singing proved “cathartic” and her emotional connection to some of the songs was heightened by what she faced in her own life.
“There’s a beautiful marriage between the music and lyrics,” she says.
“A beautiful wilting melody.”
Singer Eleanor McCain poses for a photo to promote the release of her project “True North: The Canadian Songbook” made up of an album and a hefty coffee table book.